Electric guitar players are all about tone, and one of the first things a player needs to know is how guitar pickup height affects an electric guitar’s tone. Pickup height is the distance between the pickup and the strings, but what changes when a pickup is raised or lowered is the position of the strings in the pickup’s magnetic field.
How does guitar pickup height affect tone? Guitar pickup height affects tone due to the distance between the pickups and the guitar strings. As the distance gets smaller, the string’s vibration pattern, pitch, and sustain are altered along with an increase in the pickup output. All of these factors ultimately affect the tone of the guitar.
In this article, we’ll discuss how guitar pickup height affects tone, including how a passive pickup’s electromagnetic field reacts to string vibration, the effect of pickup height adjustment on tone and volume, and the result of both high and low pickup height adjustments.
Passive Pickup Magnetic Field & String Vibration
A passive magnetic pickup in an electric guitar and the strings, which are made of a magnetic metal, interact to produce the guitar’s output signal. This happens via electrical inductance, where the movement of the string through the pickup’s magnetic field induces a very small voltage in the pickup winding.
The strength or volume of the pickup output signal will increase as the pickup and string are brought closer together.
The clarity of the signal, however, will begin to be affected as the string moves into the stronger magnetic field close to the pickup because the field will exert a magnetic attraction on the string. This attraction can effectively change the string’s vibration pattern and, therefore, its pitch, sustain and tone.
Note that an active pickup works in the exact same way as a passive pickup but has a built-in active circuit (preamp and various filters) that boosts and shapes the signal. The difference in tone resulting from pickup height, then, is directly comparable to passive pickups.
The electromagnetic pickups we are discussing are the passive induction pickups usually found in a standard electric guitar. Passive induction pickups are constructed with a winding of a single, very fine wire built up around the pickup’s permanent magnet(s).
The guitar strings, which are made of a magnetic metal, interact with the pickup magnet’s magnetic field to produce the guitar’s output signal. This is via electrical inductance, where the movement of the string through the pickup’s magnetic field induces very small voltage and current in the pickup winding.
This electromagnetic generation of electric current is what gave the electric guitar its name. The pickup output signal will vary in both frequency (pitch) and amplitude (strength).
The frequency of the signal tends to be steady through changes in pickup height up to the point where pure magnetic attraction begins to act on the strings.
Once again, the strength of the pickup output signal will increase as the pickup and string are brought closer together and decrease as they are moved apart. The signal clarity is also affected as the string experiences a stronger magnetic field (close to the pickups), which effectively changes the string’s vibration pattern and, therefore, its tone.
Tone vs Volume
To understand the Tone vs Volume dilemma, let’s start with the pickup output signal.
Is the pickup output an AC or DC signal?
The output of a passive pickup is an alternating current signal. At rest (no vibrating strings), the pickup output is 0 volts. When a string vibrates in the magnetic field, a positive voltage is induced when the string is closest, and a negative voltage is induced when the string is farthest away. Playing softly or aggressively varies the range of string movement and, therefore, the volume of the signal.
Taken alone, this would mean bringing the string as close as possible without touching the pickup during aggressive playing, which would be the height setting most players would choose.
Your ears will probably disagree with this height setting, though, because while some players value volume above all, most guitarists spend their time and money chasing tone. And close proximity of strings and pickup fields usually doesn’t pass the tone test.
There is also the greater induction effect of the bigger strings to take into account. The angle of the pickup can be tilted to increase the space between the lower strings, and the pickup compensates for the greater volume output of the bigger strings. This also changes the overall tone produced.
Effects of High Pickup Height Setting
Let’s start with how a high pickup height affects tone.
Adjust the pickup height to the highest possible position without interfering with the string movement, and the tone will not be very warm. Sustain will be reduced, too. A main impact on the high pickup height is simply the design of passive pickups, which need strong magnets to generate the required voltages. These magnets can have a magnetic pulling effect on the strings.
Natural reproduction of guitar sound needs to capture a freely vibrating instrument. When a pickup is raised too close to the strings, the magnetic will pull the strings out of their natural vibration cycle. When a string’s vibrational cycle is closest to the pickup, the magnet will pull it a little closer than the natural distance. Conversely, when the string reaches the farthest position of the cycle, the magnet will prevent it from reaching the natural position.
When the two effects of the pickup’s magnets on the strings are combined, the tone can be affected in odd ways. A common result is a wobbling or warbling sound due to the shifting of the vibration pattern and subsequent output wave. Even the tuning can be affected in cases of extreme string pull.
Effects of Low Pickup Height Setting
Anytime a guitar sounds too harsh, with poor sustain and generally bad tone, try lowering the pickup height before spending any time or money replacing parts or the guitar.
If the pickup is too high, the tone should warm up, getting rich or full as the height is reduced. This is because the strings will no longer be as affected by the magnetic pull of the pickup and will be able to vibrate freely in their natural cycles and harmonics.
There is a sweet spot height where the tone will be improved without significantly reducing pickup output (volume). This setting is still too high for many players, though, who may feel the bass tones are too thick or overpowering, or who simply want a lighter tone, like a clean jazz tone.
Lowering the pickup further will thin out the bass tones. The cost will be a noticeable reduction in output. Go too low, and the tone will get thin and weak as the strings move out to the edges of the magnetic field.
As a last note, always be realistic with expectations. Adjusting pickup height is a simple and cost-free way of experimenting with a guitar’s tonal potential, but don’t expect a hot, high-output humbucker pickup to play like a low-output pickup designed for a jazz guitar.
Equal & Unequal Heights Of Pickup Pole Pieces
To wrap this article up, let’s discuss how the individual pole pieces of a single pickup are ideally at differing heights. I’ve included graphic examples to help explain.
If the pickup pole pieces are all at the same height (the same distance from the guitar strings, the larger strings (lower pitch) will be louder than the smaller strings (higher pitch). This is because low strings have more mass and, therefore, a greater effect on the magnetic field and electromagnetic induction.
So to equalize the signal strength in the pickup across all strings, the pickup height should be lower beneath the largest string relative to the smallest string. This balances out the magnetic field, electromagnetic induction and, therefore, overall signal strength.